That Karyn Kusama and Diablo Cody’s Jennifer’s Body (2009) is now a re-excavated post-#MeToo classic has become a bit of a trope, albeit one rooted in undeniable truths. Buzzfeed’s picked up on it two years ago, so that just about seals the mainstreamification of that take, and I’m glad it all panned out that way, don’t get me wrong.
But neither should that smoothen out its punkier bona fides. This is a film whose title and overall thematic contours are drawn from a song by Hole, after all… one that’s culled from its early-90s sophomore album Live Through This (1994), itself a solid-gold piece of early post-grunge whose inherent quality transcends any reputational iffiness that the legacy of Courtney Love carries with it.
In many ways, I think it also course-corrects the riskily schmaltzy elements of Diablo Cody’s breakthrough, Juno (2007), by passing them through the B-movie horror lens. Yes, the film’s marketing department contributed to its initially dismal box office and critical performance by relying too much on the cheaply exploitative Megan Fox-isms; playing to the peanut gallery of horny teenage boys by presenting her demonically posessed man-eater character as something akin to Natasha Henstridge’s murderous alien seductress in 1995’s Species.
Apart from the now-documented sexism and idiocy that underpinned this entire marketing debacle, it must also be said that they missed a trick in other ways. There is certainly a schlocky exploitation element to Jennifer’s Body, but it’s informed by the same strain of subversive, tongue-in-cheek humour and cheekiness that characterises a lot of the vintage horror cinema that Cody and Kusama doubtlessly draw energy from. That its overlaid with Cody’s now-trademark crackling dialogue provides an added layer of cool, self-aware appeal, but its dark, disemboweling overtones ensure that it doesn’t slip into Juno’s sometimes grating over-cuteness.
After demonic-Jennifer claims her first on-screen victim, the unfortunate teenage boy’s father responds to the police’s promises that they will do their utmost to catch the perpetrator (whom they automatically and tellingly assume to be male) with a hilarious counter-missive: “I’ll get him myself! I will! You hear me, you bastard? I’ll cut off your nutsack and nail it to my door! Like one of those lion doorknockers rich folks got! That’ll be your balls!”
But Jennifer’s Body will also continue to survive by dint of its sneakily truthful exploration of female friendship, and problematic ‘sisterhood’ as expressed during the turbulent high school years.
It’s rightly hailed as a feminist film, but it sugar-coats nothing, in a way that ties into its erstwhile spiritual predecessor: John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2000), in which this time literal sisters are forced apart when one of them succumbs to lycanthropy – a metaphor that once again plays out as the supernatural pushing already-latent hormonal angst into overdrive. (Film Geek Six Degrees of Separation Time: Ginger Snaps’ Emily Perkins has a cameo as a memorably disinterested abortion clinic clerk in Juno).
Even prior to her demonic posession, Jennifer is a domineering, gaslighting presence for Amanda Seyfried’s aptly-monikered Needy – and it is Needy’s arc that we end up rooting for in the end, after she sheds her co-dependence on Jennifer to truly claim her full agency.
But the undeniable toxicity of their relationship does not in any way dampen the violation Jennifer suffers at the hands of the Satan-courting band Low Shoulder, who attempt to use her assumed virginity to seal a demonic pact that will secure their future success. That they get their just desserts by Needy’s hand in the end is not down to the mousy protagonist pathetically avenging ther domineering ex-friend. She does it for all womankind, not just for Jennifer’s sake.
Now it wouldn’t be entirely right to cast Jennifer’s Body as some sort of all-out gritty underground cult gem: while a lot of us agree that it was misunderstood and maltreated both from within and without upon release, it remains a sleek piece of mainstream horror top-billed by then white-hot Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried (both, let’s be frank, squeezed a bit too tightly into teenage roles that we’ll have to squint a bit to believe).
But even then, the very fact that it was produced by 20th Century Fox and given the spit-polished star treatment is likely what it led to it being shish-kebabbed on arrival, as this inevitably leads to it being catapulted into a rarified atmosphere of corporate bullshit whose baseline expectations have zero to do with memorable storytelling. Kusama and Cody did NOT play ball with this one. And thank the demonic deities for that.
I rewatched Jennifer’s Body after a day of packing more of our flat into boxes and suitcases for an imminent move to another apartment, in the peak of summer no less. This is both a physical and emotional struggle in many ways, so a degree of rawness at the end of the day is to be expected.
It certainly made me more vulnerable to the layers of nostalgia that this 2009 film is now riddled with: the references to MySpace, Low Shoulder tapping into the emo craze (see also: the Fall Out Boy poster on Jennifer’s bedroom wall), Needy’s schlubby boyfriend Chip using “everyone [at that bar] has a mustache” as a pejorative.
A lot has changed in 11 years.